What does re-opening mean for residents experiencing homelessness in the District?

What does re-opening mean for residents experiencing homelessness in the District?

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, homeless shelters across the District have added safety measures in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. People experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk for infection from the coronavirus: They’re often unable to follow stay-at-home measures and have less access to medical care, making them more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

Street Sense Media, which focuses on issues related to homelessness, recently returned to print after over two months off, suspending production to protect the health of its vendors, many of whom experience housing insecurity.

As the District begins to reopen, how is the city managing the spread of the coronavirus among residents experiencing homelessness? Are city shelters able to meet the needs of D.C.’s homeless population during the ongoing public health crisis?

Produced by Kayla Hewitt


  • Laura Zeilinger Director, D.C. Department of Human Services; @ZLauraJeanne
  • Lissa Ramsepaul Clinical Director, Street Sense Media; @streetsensedc


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast avoiding possible burnout from intense activism, but first, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected people experiencing homelessness in the District. How are homelessness residents fairing as D.C. begins to reopen and the weather heats up? What's being done to stop the spread of the virus among the homeless and how successful have those efforts been? Joining us is Lissa Ramsepaul, the Clinical Director for Street Sense. Lissa Ramsepaul, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:42

    LISSA RAMSEPAULThank you for having me.

  • 12:00:44

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Laura Zeilinger, Director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. Laura Zeilinger, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:50

    LAURA ZEILINGERThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:00:52

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger, can you give us an overview of what people experiencing homelessness have faced during this pandemic?

  • 12:00:59

    ZEILINGERSure. So when we spoke earlier in the spring, Kojo, on your show DHS and our partners were just beginning to setup a number of protective interventions to support our residents who experience homelessness especially those in shelter. And this continues to be a challenging situation. However, data shows that our efforts are working. So our trends have followed the rest of the city in terms of new infections and we've seen a sharp decline in cases in our emergency shelters. So we have -- in May, for example, we had 120 new cases of COVID among people experiencing homelessness. And in June that was 19. So what we are -- we have a number of protective measures in terms of social distancing, access to healthcare, testing, contact tracing as well as just ensuring the ability to keep people connected and safe. And we remain diligent on those efforts as we move forward.

  • 12:01:58

    ZEILINGERSadly we've lost the lives of 20 people who are experiencing homelessness, which keeps us focused on the need to maintain safety measures as COVID continues to be a threat in our community.

  • 12:02:12

    NNAMDIWhat precautions are taken to keep people in shelters socially distanced from one another?

  • 12:02:17

    ZEILINGERWe have decreased the number of people staying in each of our shelters. So about 65 percent of capacity. For people who are most at risk due to their health and age we've provided them with single room shelter and hotels to allow us to reduce the number of people staying in shelter. People have access, of course, to masks. They're staying in the same shelter -- same bed, same shelter every night. We do health screenings every day there and we've changed the way we do meals and increased our sanitation, our deep clean throughout our shelters to make sure that we're creating a sanitary environment.

  • 12:03:00

    ZEILINGERAnd if people are exhibiting symptoms we're able to very quickly connect them to a quarantine site testing. And if they test positive do contact tracing. So all of those things have been effective in allowing both more distance within our shelters as well as a rapid response should we have any introduction of COVID into a program.

  • 12:03:24

    NNAMDIYou mentioned contact tracing. How is that being implemented in homeless shelters?

  • 12:03:29

    ZEILINGERWell, because we've implemented a same shelter, same bed every night policy, we know exactly who are the people who are coming in closest contact both through interviews as well as our bed lists. And we're able to then alert people if they've been exposed and provide them access to quarantine, which we also use hotels for.

  • 12:03:49

    NNAMDIYou mentioned testing, Laura Zeilinger. How often are coronavirus tests being administered in homeless shelters across the city?

  • 12:03:57

    ZEILINGERAs soon as we -- someone identifies as potentially being -- having symptoms we're immediately able to offer testing. We do health screening every day to identify any onset of symptoms. And if we've had a positive case at a congregate shelter, we're able to then come in within a few days and test everybody at the site so that we're able is someone is not showing symptoms, but maybe carrying the virus, identify that person within the congregate setting.

  • 12:04:27

    NNAMDILissa Ramsepaul, for those who may not know, what is Street Sense?

  • 12:04:32

    RAMSEPAULSo Street Sense Media is a new service organization that -- we produce a paper that is contributed to and vended on the streets of D.C. by folks who are currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. We also offer other services. We have a case management and outreach program that focuses on ways to support the needs of our folks towards financial and housing security. But also just the kinds of things that are hard to manage when being employed as somebody experiencing homelessness or recently housed.

  • 12:05:10

    RAMSEPAULWe also do a bit of outreach meeting basic needs. We're just two blocks from the White House. So we are an area where there have been protests and the closing of both Lafayette and now Franklin Square Parks. So we try to meet some basic needs. Some of that recently has been wrapped around COVID-19 measures like making sure PPE is accessible and connecting to healthcare and a lot of the services that Laura outlined.

  • 12:05:36

    RAMSEPAULBut also on the long term, our case management services help support our employment program. To be a Street Sense founder or to contribute you don't need to meet any qualifications. You need to come in and be interested and willing to participate.

  • 12:05:50

    NNAMDIStreet Sense topped production of its print newspaper at the start of the pandemic. What informed that decision?

  • 12:05:57

    RAMSEPAULSo we were mostly wanting to do what was safe and the most responsible based on guidance from DHS, from CDC and also from the mayor's office. At that time and it was in late March, the 25th, I believe, it seemed that there were a number of methods for this being spread one of which being concern about close contact as well as being airborne. So we were concerned both for the health and safety of our vendors, but also that of the public if we were forcing people to be out selling the paper, but through face to face contact.

  • 12:06:38

    RAMSEPAULSo at that time our CEO Brian Carome in consultation with our senior staff as well as other street papers across the country and world talked about what they were doing and the consensus was that many were moving away from print publication for the time being in order to promote public safety and looking for ways to, to the best of all of our ability, alleviate the financial strain of laying off in our case 130 venders when we did that, would bring.

  • 12:07:09

    RAMSEPAULAdditionally, though, we also have returned to paper sales as of last Wednesday. But for that period of time we wanted to just do what was in line with, you know, professional guidance, what was safe. We were able to stay open during that time on a limited basis and continue to provide other services.

  • 12:07:27

    NNAMDILet's talk with Kate at Eastern Market. Kate, thank you for calling. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:33

    KATEHi. I live in Eastern Market and work with a church down there that does a lot of outreach and we're noticing a lot of things. People don't have a restroom to go to. And this morning we were walking around and there's a police officer greeting all of friends who slept in the park and they're soaking wet. And the police officer is willing to move people along and get them to pack up their things. So it's a really challenging time right now.

  • 12:07:57

    NNAMDIAnd the police officers, you say, are wanting to move homeless persons along?

  • 12:08:01

    KATEYes. Yes. We have a few folks who we know who are living in a park. And in many ways, especially given their health conditions and their age it's going to be safer for them to be sleeping outside than to be sleeping in a shelter. And for many of them, yes, the police and others are wanting them to clean up their areas and go somewhere else.

  • 12:08:25

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, Laura Zeilinger?

  • 12:08:27

    ZEILINGERSure. Well, first and foremost, I know that many people may feel that shelter is not safe. We're working really hard to make sure shelter is safe for everybody. And for people with particular medical vulnerabilities we are able to also shelter them in hotels. And want to make sure the people have options. We also know that some people don't feel safe coming inside. We've added porta potties, handwashing stations throughout the city so that our neighbors who are unsheltered and homeless are able to access sanitation and bathrooms. And our outreach workers and our partners have been out also providing services to people including dry clothes after rain, when possible make sure they're connected to healthcare, supports and meals and so forth.

  • 12:09:22

    ZEILINGERIt's been extremely challenging during stay-at-home to be able to be out and providing those services. However, we have had many people out there doing that incredible work and we will continue to do so. But there are -- there absolutely are services and supports available, and know we have some fantastic partners over in the Eastern Market, Capitol Hill area.

  • 12:09:49

    NNAMDILissa Ramsepaul, as of last week you mentioned Street Sense vendors many of whom experience housing insecurity are back on the streets selling print copies of the newspaper. Why did you decide to restart production now?

  • 12:10:02

    RAMSEPAULWell, when we made the determination that we were going to temporarily suspend paper sales, we knew that we would return to the print edition. We -- basically the same criteria. We wanted to look at what our partners across the world were doing. We wanted to look at guidance from, you know, the city, as well as, what the recommendations were by, you know, health professionals and by the CDC. And so as D.C. was entering the next phase of reopening it looked numbers were down both in the citywide count of new COVID cases and COVID related deaths as well as in the homeless population as Laura mentioned. It seemed there was nothing else holding us back.

  • 12:10:50

    RAMSEPAULThe caveat is that what we are doing differently -- there's a few things. One in order for people to come into our office either to purchase their papers to sell for any other services even if they wish to come in to use the restroom, which we certainly allow, we are checking the temperature of every person who comes in including our staff. If anyone is elevated or experiencing symptoms we then have our case management department connect them to healthcare for medical advice and or whatever the next step needs to be, but they are not allowed to come in that day. In addition to that, we are providing PPE for each of our vendors on a daily basis so masks. We are offering gloves, hand sanitizer.

  • 12:11:29

    NNAMDIOkay. Got to take a short break, when we come back we'll continue this conversation about what reopening means for D.C. residents experiencing homeless. And I'm looking forward to calls from you at 800-433-8850. Have you experienced housing insecurity during the pandemic? What do you think people should know about the experience? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:06

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We are discussing what the pandemic and reopening means for D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. We're talking with Laura Zeilinger, the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. And Lissa Ramsepaul, the Clinical Director for Street Sense. Here now is Marina in Northeast Washington. Marina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:26

    MARIANAHi. Thanks everybody for your work. I live down here on 15th Street near Hechinger Mall. And since the COVID has started we've sort of become an epicenter it would appear. Folks have no place to go. All around Hechinger Mall, at the bottom of Hechinger -- well, it used to be called Hechinger Mall. I don't even know what it's called anymore. At the bottom there's a little park that used to have running water, a little fountain, a little chess table and all that, but it's become a congregating place for people who have no place else to go.

  • 12:13:00

    MARIANAAnd it doesn't seem to be an acknowledged center, so there's no cleanup. There's no -- doesn't seem to be any sort of organization around that. And I was just wondering if that's a place that folks haven't noticed or is there anything that anybody can do to keep it -- mostly keep it clean, because they're there because they don't want to go.

  • 12:13:24

    NNAMDIThat's the intersection where Bladensburg Road and Benning Road and Maryland Avenue all intersect, correct?

  • 12:13:29


  • 12:13:30

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, Laura Zeilinger?

  • 12:13:33

    ZEILINGERSure. We will absolutely make sure that our partners, our outreach teams and partners at Behavioral Health and the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services are making sure that that's a group of folks, who are not going unnoticed and uncared for. And do some outreach as well as make sure that we got DW picking up trash. So thanks for flagging. And you can always contact us around those types of things and we respond pretty quickly. So thank you.

  • 12:14:01

    NNAMDILissa Ramsepaul. How are you vendors faring now that they're back to selling?

  • 12:14:06

    RAMSEPAULWell, certainly it's slow. As we know many offices are still closed and will remain so for the foreseeable future in terms of being able to work from home. So we have had I would say last I checked this morning, we have about approximately 40 percent of our active vendors, who have returned to sales. And most are reporting to me that foot traffic is slow. And so they're not able to make as much as they have been. Because of that, of course, folks are concerned about not being able to pay rent for those who are housed, other folks who just meeting basic needs. So we're relying more on us and other partner agencies for basic needs like food and clothing, medical care, PPE, all manner of other things.

  • 12:14:56

    RAMSEPAULThe other thing too is we haven't talked about is the stress and the impact on emotional and, you know, mental health and well-being. Through all of this it's been very stressful. I'm a licensed clinical social worker here in the District. And a lot of what we've done is had to help people just bearing through the stress, connecting to behavioral health services as necessary, but also just simply providing people a safe space to bring their fears and their frustrations. And some of the fears are around the disease itself, but many are about their long term wellbeing.

  • 12:15:32

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Annie who says, "Due to the lack of basic sanitation for homeless individuals, is there any effort to distribute hand sanitizer and masks to homeless and housing insecure folks?" I think earlier in the discussion, Laura Zeilinger, you mentioned that.

  • 12:15:49

    ZEILINGERYeah. Our outreach teams do distribute both masks and sanitizer. And we also distribute masks at our shelter sites, encourage our residents to wear masks there and we do have sanitizer available at our shelters.

  • 12:16:06

    NNAMDIRecently released data collected in January revealed that the District had the fewest number of residents experienced homelessness since 2001, Laura Zeilinger. Now in light of the coronavirus pandemic experts predict the city will experience a surge in homelessness. How is your department preparing for that possibility?

  • 12:16:26

    ZEILINGERSo we know that homelessness is usually a lagging indicator after an economic recession. And that we through the work we've done with our interagency council on homelessness, Homeward D.C., that we've really worked to build systems that are increasing making homelessness more rare, brief and non-recurring. And that rare part really comes from preventing homelessness. So we have doubled down on our efforts to ensure resources are available to people who've had loss of income that could otherwise result in homelessness.

  • 12:17:00

    ZEILINGERWe have our emergency rental assistance program, which people can now go online to see if they might be eligible and setup an appointment without having to come in in-person. They can do that remotely. We are -- the District's Department of Housing and Community Development recently announced a program funded -- also federally funded with our home dollars to offer tenant based rental assistance there.

  • 12:17:29

    ZEILINGERAnd we are consistently through our homelessness prevention program for families that's been in place for a number of years now as well as Project Reconnect more recently for single adults -- at the point people are in the brink of homelessness able to intervene with some flexible supports to promote stability. So we have planned for additional resources both federal and local in our fiscal year '21 budget that our Council has its first vote on today. And will continue to stay focused on homelessness prevention as well as helping, when it can't be prevented, people quickly regain housing.

  • 12:18:07

    NNAMDIHere is Joe in Tenleytown. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:12

    JOEHey, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. So my big concern right now is this eviction that's hanging over our -- not only locally but nationally. That people who have been out of work and they're, you know, trying to keep a roof over their heads and buy food and buy necessities, medicine that, you know, the city do everything they can to not evict anybody at this time. It's like a national emergency and some special requirements are happening right now that we should not evict people due to lack of rent. And where does your guest stand on that?

  • 12:18:45

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger, is that one of the things the Council is considering even as we speak?

  • 12:18:49

    ZEILINGERIt is. There is currently a prohibition on evictions. And Council is looking on extending that past this public health emergency. And we really do want to encourage people who are having difficulty, because of loss of income, paying rent, to contact us to contact our Emergency Rental Assistance Program, to contact the HCD. We want to connect people with resources so that they are able to keep their credit and be in their tenant records as well as to avoid eviction.

  • 12:19:24

    NNAMDILissa Ramsepaul, as the Clinical Director of Street Sense, what is your role with the organization?

  • 12:19:30

    RAMSEPAULIt's twofold and it's transitioning a bit. So I oversee our case management and outreach programs. And as part of that I actually am the one usually on street outreach in some capacity. I oversee and perform a bit of our case management function as well. And I also handle clinical emergencies. So somebody coming in with a mental health crisis, somebody needing treatment. Right now if somebody comes in with COVID symptoms, you know, making sure that they get the healthcare that they need.

  • 12:20:03

    RAMSEPAULAlso our vendor employment program starting this summer I've begun overseeing the director of that program. And so part of it is looking to create a really seamless approach that looks at the whole person and prioritizes their employment. We know that homelessness is largely an economic program.

  • 12:20:28

    RAMSEPAULIt's complicated and there are many things involved, but if you don't have work and aren't able to get work and build up experience, you're not going to be able to afford somewhere to live. So that's our primary mission of our organization is creating a no barrier approach and using community and supportive services to bolster that. So my job is to oversee both of those programs and help work that together in a seamless manner while also managing the overall mental health and well-being of our folks.

  • 12:20:56

    NNAMDIChad in Georgetown. Chad, you're on the air. We only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:00

    CHADOkay. I'll speak quickly. Kojo, thanks for the show and to your speakers. So a couple of technologies we've been exploring. I'm an emergency physician with the military. One is a passive technology called dry hydrogen peroxide. The other is needle point bipolar ionization. But basically in our research we've been able to put these things into a facilities and eliminate -- our biohazard mitigation like COVID. I know that in some of our research shows that in homeless shelters it can help actively kill things like lice and other parasites on homeless and give them more confidence to be in small rooms together.

  • 12:21:41

    CHADI just wondered if you guys have taken a look at any of those approaches as opposed -- I know you're doing active things like shields and washing hands and Purell. But I think this technology is in the position to maybe be donated to the city.

  • 12:21:54

    NNAMDII'm afraid we only have, Laura Zeilinger, about 20 seconds left.

  • 12:21:58

    ZEILINGERSo I'd love to learn more. Please, do contact us. And I just want to also acknowledge we do have a storyboard that has just launched on our website at dhs.dc.gov/storyboard where you can follow our trends around what we're doing to reduce the spread of COVID in our community.

  • 12:22:18

    NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Laura Zeilinger, Lissa Ramsepaul, thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll look at the mental and physical toll of intense activism. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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